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In one of the first natural disasters to strike the United States since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, severe storms and tornadoes battered Southern states on Easter Sunday. Two days later, more than 30 people had been killed, hundreds of homes had been destroyed, and several thousand lost power. Many families now have to choose between staying in structurally unsafe homes and sheltering in crowded spaces where social distancing may be impossible. For those evacuees who are among the 17 million people who have recently lost their jobs, finding permanent housing may prove challenging.
The following Monday, April 13, President Donald Trump insisted in a White House briefing that he was on top of the situation. “FEMA is already on its way,” Trump stated, “I said, ‘Get out there.’ So FEMA is there and you know the great job that FEMA does. It’s really something very special.” But the federal government’s track record in handling natural disasters and, in particular, its lack of interest in assisting renters, is precisely why we should be concerned.
August 29 will mark the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast. The federal government responded to the crisis with almost criminal incompetence: The administration of George W. Bush failed to deliver medical supplies and personnel, abandoned vulnerable residents, placed survivors in trailers built with toxic materials, and lavished funds on local governments that blatantly discriminated against poor communities of color and occupants of affordable rental housing.
Since this catastrophe, federal agencies have made some progress. Today, much of the paperwork that impeded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from enlisting the military during Katrina is prepared in advance; hospitals and nursing homes that receive certain federal funds are required to have emergency evacuation plans; FEMA stocks and positions emergency supplies in advance of disasters (although the aftermath of Hurricane Maria demonstrated that the supplies can’t distribute themselves without effective leadership); and, thankfully, directing FEMA requires at least five years of “significant experience in crisis management.” (Michael D. Brown, who oversaw FEMA during Katrina, had been a commissioner at the International Arabian Horse Association from 1989 to 2001.)
Yet federal agencies have yet to internalize one of Katrina’s most important lessons: that renters need direct disaster relief even more than homeowners, small landlords, and commercial developers.
The stakes are high for anyone in the path of a natural disaster. For homeowners and renters alike, calamities can lead to bankruptcy, foreclosure, or eviction, and homelessness—but renters are especially vulnerable. Affordable and accessible homes are more susceptible to destruction, and less likely to return to the market. Of the 82,000 rental units damaged or destroyed in Louisiana by Katrina, 20 percent had been affordable to extremely low-income households. The aftermath of a major disaster often triggers rent hikes as the housing supply diminishes, demand increases, and cheaper units are replaced by higher-end units. One year after Katrina, rents in New Orleans were 40 percent higher than before the hurricane. Three years out, the city’s homeless population had doubled to 12,000.
When the hurricane hit, half of all renters in Louisiana were already overburdened by housing costs. After Katrina, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided rental voucher assistance through three programs, but vouchers did not reach everyone who needed support. The first set aside $390 million to evacuees who had received federal assistance or were homeless before Katrina; that program ended on January 31, 2006. The second program was an extension of the first and lasted 18 months. This version, however, excluded people who were homeless before Katrina. The third program began January 2007 and provided a time-limited, declining rental subsidy to low-income households that had not previously received help from HUD. Around 36,000 households participated in the voucher programs.
With HUD approval, the states affected by Katrina initially opted to give homeowners $13 billion in tax incentives, loans, and grants—but did not set aside proportionate aid for renters. The omission was so egregious that Congress released an additional $1 billion, along with explicit instructions to rehabilitate rental housing. With a second green light from HUD, the states set out to distribute the federal money to benefit renters, except all the funding was reserved for public housing authorities, developers, and small landlords.
The states moved excruciatingly slowly. It would take Louisiana two years to rehabilitate the first rental units under its federally funded program. By 2010, a mere 18 percent of the state’s damaged rental units had received federal funds compared to 62 percent of homeowner units. HUD watched idly as Louisiana localities obstructed the new construction of affordable rentals, and discriminated against lower-income residents with housing vouchers. But the vast majority of renters were left with nothing: Of the total $1.8 billion ultimately allocated to the rental housing stock, not a single cent went directly to renters.
HUD’s track record does not bode well for the upcoming season of hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires—not to mention the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
For starters, the disbursement of funds remains drawn out. Despite a record spike in unemployment and the need to shelter in place, governments have been timid in addressing the concerns of renters. At the federal level, the stimulus bill paused evictions of certain federally assisted rental properties or tenants for nonpayment through July 25. Cities like Los Angeles, San Antonio, and New York implemented 30- to 90-day moratoriums on evictions. Right now, though, landlords in Arkansas and West Virginia can still kick out their tenants. Even where evictions are temporarily suspended, officials have not stopped rent from accruing. The pandemic response has bought renters time, but without a significant financial intervention from the government, thousands of renters could find themselves on the street the moment social distancing restrictions are lifted. Extreme weather will only exacerbate this impending crisis. But the federal government does not have the luxury of time: Hurricane season opens on June 1.
Here, again, the precedent that the federal government has set is troubling. When Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, HUD took 17 months to provide Puerto Rico with the first $1.5 billion in disaster mitigation. It then took another 11 months for the second tranche of $8.2 billion. These delays have harsh consequences on renters.
FEMA provides some direct rental assistance, as a stopgap between the disaster and HUD funding being put to work. But the upper cap for receiving individual assistance is 18 months, and in most cases, it works out to about two months. For many households, the FEMA application can prove daunting. Rates of denied applications are high. The direct assistance is also capped at the fair-market rent cost of the disaster location, regardless of whether rents climb post-disaster or survivors have relocated to a more expensive area. To the extent that it is distributed, FEMA assistance is no substitute for the kind of longer-term assistance given to homeowners and developers.
In Puerto Rico, the effect of these delays increased the amount of uninhabitable housing and swelled the rate of emigration to the mainland to 160,000. For Maria evacuees, this came to a head in September 2018 when FEMA abruptly gave 987 families two days to check out of the mainland hotels where they had been housed. Without federal assistance, many of these families had nowhere to go.
Even where localities propose to use HUD funds for direct rental assistance, months of delays can mean large waves of displacement and exposure to homelessness before the funding becomes available. When a fire ravaged the northern California town of Paradise in November 2018, Butte County lost 14,000 homes. HUD moved quickly by its own standards, allocating millions in disaster funding in January 2020. But 15 months is a long time to be displaced. The Paradise area was facing a severe shortage of rental units even before the fire. Fourteen months after the fire, the majority of evacuees aged 65 and older had moved more than 30 miles away. Members of lower-income households were particularly likely to have relocated far away. Meanwhile, the rate of homelessness in Butte County grew by 16 percent in 2019.
In addition to acting slowly, HUD continues to approve state action plans that exclude renters from direct disaster payments. Evidence shows that this disproportionately harms poorer communities of color.
At the root of this is the reality that much of the country remains segregated by race, and that the infrastructure in many nonwhite neighborhoods reflects years of systemic disinvestment. It’s not simply that affordable housing tends to be shabbier. In many places, low-income and minority neighborhoods are often concentrated in floodplains, or located near open-ditch sewage systems or close to environmental polluters, exposing residents to chemical spills and leaks. These factors make poorer residents of color more vulnerable to extreme weather than their wealthier, white counterparts.
Unequal social relations further exacerbate the impact of natural disasters. Complex eligibility criteria, limited access to documentation, lengthy applications, inadequate Internet access, and delays in setting up state programs to distribute federal funds can put applicants with less education or facing language barriers at a greater disadvantage. The result is that disaster relief funding disproportionately benefits whiter, higher income neighborhoods. Sociologists Junia Howell of the University of Pittsburgh and James Elliott of Rice University have found that “as local hazard damages increase, so does wealth inequality, especially along lines of race, education, and homeownership.… the more aid an area receives from [FEMA], the more this inequality grows.”
Angenitta Oaks was renting a townhouse with her two children when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston on August 25, 2017. The Category 4 hurricane lingered for five days, shaking Southeast Texas with 132-mph winds and five feet of rainfall—the highest on record for the United States. Like 20 percent of her predominantly black neighborhood, Oaks lived below the poverty line. She was also significantly disabled; her primary source of income was a monthly disability check for $771. Without the resources to evacuate, Oaks opted to shelter in place until the storm passed. Water crept under the door of Oaks’s unit and damaged the walls, floor, carpet, kitchen cabinets, fridge, and stove. A 2014 survey of all the open drainage ditches in Houston revealed that 88 percent were located in majority-minority neighborhoods and that most of these ditches failed to provide even modest flood protection. Oaks and her children lost what food, furniture, and clothes they owned. Housing advocates estimate that the storm damaged up to 71,000 rental units.
Congress responded to Hurricane Harvey with a disaster relief package of $5.7 billion, and Texas allocated $1.13 billion of this to renter programs (again, indirectly). The remainder went to homeowner assistance. HUD approved this plan, too. To date, Oaks has received $800 from FEMA for her car and nothing from HUD. On November 19, 2019, she joined five other plaintiffs in suing HUD and the Texas General Land Office for distributing federal funds in a manner that perpetuates racial discrimination.
Indeed, HUD of all agencies ought to be more alert to the needs of renters like Oaks. The agency is in charge of enforcing Title VI of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. It has a legal obligation, in reviewing these state action plans, to identify potential violations of Title VI.
Thus far, though, the federal agency has provided little reassurance to renters. A HUD guide addressing tenant concerns related to the pandemic opens with the words rent is still due and emphasizes that evictions are temporarily suspended only for nonpayment and only for tenants living in HUD multifamily housing or FHA-insured housing. Public housing residents enjoy no such guarantee. On March 18, HUD Secretary Ben Carson tweeted that he was seeking authorization from Congress to prevent evictions in public housing programs. But there has been no indication, from either Carson or HUD, of any parallel effort to expand aid to the majority of renters through disaster relief. (The White House has not declared the pandemic a major disaster.)
The reality is that extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses. With no vaccine and an uneven government response, the scientific consensus is clear: Our best chance to contain the coronavirus is to all stay home. But within a few months, the season of major weather events will return: hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires. And when it does, the disaster relief machine will roar back into action. This time HUD really can’t botch its response. There can be no evacuees crammed in the Superdome for days or left to sleep on the street. HUD has to prepare now to guarantee each person a speedy access to a safe home, no matter their property ownership status. Global health depends on it.